The rise and fall of Sad White Men

Novels about middle class male malaise are now considered passé but they were once both groundbreaking and shocking


This article is taken from the July 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Last year, The Observer reported that male writers are increasingly absent from literary prize shortlists and fiction catalogues, while one publisher acknowledged that “if a really good novel by a male writer lands on my desk, I do genuinely say to myself, ‘This will be more difficult to publish.’”

Others narrow the issue further. In 2020 The Times reported one publisher as saying it was “young white men” that were “really, really hard” to publish because “the culture doesn’t want to hear from them.” Earlier this year, Private Eye noted that white men were entirely absent not only from some major prize shortlists but also from the latest catalogues of several high-end literary fiction imprints. 

Men are not, of course, over — the last two Booker winners were white men, and they continue to recklessly publish new novels — but they are sharing the limelight now more than ever. In a world where fiction is as likely to be marketed on its author’s story as its characters’, we want to hear from other people. And maybe it’s not just readers, but literature itself, which has become exhausted by the same stories. 

The culture works in a consuming spiral, feeding on new subjects, extracting the juice from them and moving on when only the husk remains. In every generation it has been fiction’s task to find the under-told stories and pull them out into the light, a category which includes not just race and sex but also social standing. 

Martin Amis identified it in his novel The Information (an example, not incidentally, par excellence of the story of the middle-class white man). His protagonist Richard Tull proposed writing a book called The History of Increasing Humiliation. “It would be a book accounting for the decline in status and virtue of literary protagonists. First gods, then demi-gods, then kings, then great warriors, great lovers, then burghers and vicars and doctors and lawyers. Then social realism: you. Then irony: me.”

Could it be that the stories of the average middle-class white man — the ones we grew up on — were once a novelty? In one sense, yes: there are novels that were as groundbreaking and shocking then as they are considered passé today. Let’s call them the stories of Sad White Men. What, you might ask, could this most privileged category of human have to be sad about? The answer is everyday life, and in these books the great life-or-death struggles of literature in previous centuries were reduced and compressed into the malaise of getting up every morning and getting on with it again. 

Not that it was new to have a muddling, middle-class life at the centre of a novel, but even in the late ninteenth and early twentieth centuries, these small-scale men — Mr Pooter in The Diary of a Nobody, Denry Machin in Arnold Bennett’s The Card, H.G. Wells’s Mr Polly — tended to be played partly for laughs. Newer was the idea of centring the little man’s problems, and his psychological response to them, as the engine of the story itself.

This September sees the centenary of the publication of what might have been the first fully-fledged Sad White Man novel: Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt. Lewis was a rare cross between a genius and a hack, one of America’s great literary chroniclers of its times who was nonetheless capable of turning out shoddy dreck. He was, as his not-to-be-confused-with contemporary Upton Sinclair told him directly, “one of the most curiously uneven writers I have ever known”. 

Once Lewis had broken the dam, a flood of Sad White Men could follow

Babbitt is one of the few novels of his that will survive. Although often seen as satirical in intent, the book runs deeper than that. Prosperous real-estate broker George Babbitt is a comic but also a tragic figure: a real person, in other words. He is, as his author puts it, “the perfect office-going executive — a well-fed man in a correct brown soft hat and frameless spectacles, smoking a large cigar, driving a good motor along a semi-suburban parkway,” or as the quip-happy H.L. Mencken put it, a fully-paid-up member of the “booboisie”.

Sinclair Lewis

Yet for all his material comforts, George Babbitt is unhappy (“What was it all about? What did he want?”), and begins to question his status in society, even reflecting that local strikers might be “decent” people. He associates with bohemians and even campaigns for a liberal politician he had previously fought against. The tension in the novel derives from whether Babbitt has the strength of character to fulfil his rebellion, or whether he will remain “trapped in the very net which he had with such fury escaped”.

Babbitt was a huge commercial success, selling 150,000 copies in its first three months, and George Babbitt’s name entered the language, as a term meaning someone who conforms to prevailing middle-class standards. But the sceptical view the book took of American business life wasn’t universally popular: one civic organisation’s newsletter said of Lewis, “As a child he must have been kicked in the head by a horse.”

Still, once Lewis had broken the dam, a flood of Sad White Men could follow. And no book better shows how well-established the story of the quiet desperation of the prosperous man became than Sloan Wilson’s 1955 novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. Here was a more straightforward narrative, popular fiction in both style (Time called it “upper-middle-class soap opera”) and reward (like Babbitt, it was a huge bestseller).

Wilson’s hero was Tom Rath, who worked in media and public relations — professions which were bright and modish prospects at the time, and, helpfully for a writer who has a point to make, which formalised the distinction between what businesses do and what they want us to see. As with Babbitt, the pressure on Rath is whether to conform or resist — which assumes that resistance and personal freedom is the honest outcome rather than, say, earning the money his wife and three children need.

When The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit was reissued in 2002, critic James Wolcott observed it “captured and bottled a floating anxiety, a sour malaise, that belied the [1950s] peppy froth of Patti Page records and TV jingles”. But Wilson’s book is more sentimental than Lewis’s and has a happier ending, cementing the place of the Sad White Man novel not just in literature but in popular culture. As with Lewis, there was something of the hack to Wilson, a commercial writer who ploughed Rath’s story for diminishing returns 30 years later and kept himself afloat in later life by writing privately-printed biographies. 

People read it in order to see themselves, to understand that their own suburban rumblings were not merely indigestion; but also, perhaps ironically, to know that a desire to “be oneself” could be sufficiently assuaged by reading a novel on the subject rather than doing anything about it.

The essence of these novels is that they set in opposition the twins of success and failure. Conflict is essential to literature, after all: “happiness writes with white ink on white pages,” as it was expressed by Henry de Montherlant, who at least gave his biographers something to work on when he shot himself in the throat. The sense of quiet desperation in a prosperous setting provides irony, empathy, tension — all the good narrative-engine stuff.

There are two key elements to many of these stories, particularly those written in America in the second half of the twentieth century. One form of expression these suburban males inevitably find for their discontent is marital strife: both George Babbitt and Tom Rath have affairs. But this aspect took on a new dimension with one of the best known stories of the type, Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road. The novel was first published in 1961 and has been afforded several revivals since, because a good story won’t lie down.

Revolutionary Road was Yates’s first novel and is widely considered to be his best, which is correct in that it was written before alcoholism and misanthropy clouded his literary judgement and before he started putting a model of his mother (also alcoholic) in all his later novels. But it remains a sour, bitter book, even if the sourness and bitterness were yet tempered with enough character, plot and descriptive skill to be bracing.

At its centre are Frank and April Wheeler, a young married couple in Connecticut who conceive of escaping the restrictive environment of America for France, where — as April puts it to Frank — “for the first time in your life you’ll have time to find out what it is you want to do.”

By this Frank is “instantly frightened” — what if there’s nothing he wants to do, or worse, nothing he’s good at? Their belief that moving to Europe means “that they would be new and better people from now on” is not entirely persuasive, as wherever they go, they bring themselves along. And so the Wheelers are stuck in their limited success, unable to stay, unable to leave, and take it out on each other, with fighting, gaslighting and forced abortion on the menu.

But Revolutionary Road also shares with The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit the second unifying element of the 1950s Sad White Men: the Second World War. In Sloan Wilson’s book, Tom Rath served as a paratrooper and killed 17 men, as well as accidentally blowing up his best friend with a grenade. Yet the war is not so much something he can’t get over — a source of what would now be called PTSD — as a period of high emotion and drama that suburban comforts cannot hope to rival.

The same is true for Yates’s Frank Wheeler, who served in Germany in the war, and “for the first time in his life he was admired” — by both men and women. After the war, back in Connecticut, Frank finds his life has stopped rising and has reached a plateau. He can’t bear it.

Something Happened is the zenith — or nadir — of the Sad White Men novel

A life of unremitting afterwards — “It was after the war, I think, that the trouble really began” — also illuminates Joseph Heller’s novel Something Happened (1974), if illuminate is an apt word to use for one of the darkest novels of all time. But make no mistake, this book is also a comic masterpiece and one of the great novels in English of the second half of the twentieth century. Heller of course is best known for his satire Catch-22, and there’s a story (probably apocryphal) that goes around where Heller is asked why he never wrote another novel as good as Catch-22, to which he replies, “Who has?”

Nonsense. I prefer his observation — which he really did say — that “I used to think Catch-22 was my best novel until I read Kurt [Vonnegut]’s review of Something Happened. Now I think Something Happened is.” He’s right, and Vonnegut nails the post-war point in his New York Times review: “[Something Happened] might be taken as a … statement about an entire white, middle-class generation of American males, my generation, Mr Heller’s generation … that for them everything has been downhill since World War II, as absurd and bloody as it often was.”

Heller’s narrator is Bob Slocum, the most jaded and cynical of all the Sad White Men. He has no love for his wife or his children, even his disabled son (“Why won’t you leave us alone?”). He fears his colleagues. He is casually unfaithful. “This fiscal period, I am flirting with Jane.” He is at a loss, it seems, to explain why he is so unhappy: “Something must have happened to me sometime.” For Slocum, who drives the reader to delighted distraction over 600 pages of repetition, parentheses and bitter laughs, the stasis of postwar suburban success is both the problem and the solution. “I find that I am being groomed for a better job,” he tells us. “And I find — God help me — that I want it.” Something Happened is the zenith — or nadir — of the Sad White Men novel: where the other books set their characters’ unhappiness within a story, with Bob Slocum the unhappiness was the story. 

Others tried to follow it: but Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, for example, only succeeded by going so far over the top it was practically in space. And so in a self-limiting way, the genre burned itself most beautifully out, leaving the way clear for other stories — those previously untold — to take its place. Amis’s History of Increasing Humiliation continues to rumble on.

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